The south China tiger, a species native to south China but thought to be extinct in the wild, almost certainly still exist in the remote subtropical forests in the wild west, a group of scientists say.
"We saw footprints, heard their bellows and talked to villagers who had seen the big cats," said Prof. Liu Shifeng of Northwest China University.
Liu headed a group of 30 zoologists to trace the tiger in the outback of Shaanxi Province last summer and winter. They searched through at least 130,000 hectares of forests in two trips that together lasted two and a half months. But not a single tiger was spotted.
The last south China tiger was seen in Shaanxi Province in 1964.
"But this time we did find big footprints 15 cm long and 15 cm wide at an interval of one meter. They could not have been left by leopards or any other known animal in the region," he said.
Liu and his colleagues also found remains of torn-apart wild boars in the forests. "All the signs suggest south China tigers still roam the forests."
The group also visited 19 villages in eight towns in the rural counties of Zhenping and Pingli to find lucky people who had actually seen a tiger.
The experience was more fearful than lucky for Song Keming and Wang Genhua, two peasants from Zengjiazhen town of Zhenping county who saw a tiger on June 15, 2006.
"We were on a hill close to our village and saw two women collecting herbs not far off," said Song.
But something behind the two women sent a chill down their spines. "It was a tiger at least two meters long," he said.
Lucky for all the four villagers, the tiger didn't attack and quickly disappeared in the forests.
A latest report by the Shaanxi Provincial Forestry Administration says south China tigers have been spotted 17 times in Zhenping county.
Chinese history books say tigers existed in Shaanxi Province more than 1,000 years ago. "I'm happy, but not surprised that the big cats still roam the wild today," said Prof. Liu.
The provincial forestry administration said it plans to build Zhenping county into a new habitat for the tigers.
"South China tigers are as critically-endangered as giant pandas," said Wang Wanyun, an official in charge of wildlife preservation. "We'll do everything we can to protect."
Experts believe south China tigers are extinct in the wild. Only 68 have been bred in captivity at Chinese zoos and these are all descendants of two male and four female tigers caught in the 1950s and 1970s. Unless more are found in the wild, these zoo-bred tigers will eventually die out because of inbreeding.
Experts with Guangzhou Zoo and South China Agricultural University have started to preserve somatic cells of the tiger, so that the animal may be cloned to prevent from extinction.
The south China tiger, from which other sub-species such as the Siberian Tiger evolved, has been listed as one of the world's 10 most endangered animals.
Its former habitats were in Guangdong Province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region as well as the central provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi.
(Xinhua News Agency July 15, 2007)